Tens of thousands of Israelis have protested against Tel Aviv’s refusal to accept a deal to swap captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for imprisoned Hamas officials.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised public anger after announcing in a televised address on Thursday that he would not agree to the release of some 450 high-profile Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to ease growing discontent over the apparent impasse in negotiations, Netanyahu offered to free 1,000 ordinary Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.
The move, however, backfired on Friday as some 20,000 people joined a 12-day march organized by the free Shalit campaign in protest at the Israeli stance.
Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father who launched the protest on the anniversary of his son’s arrest, criticized Netanyahu’s speech.
"We regret that after four years, in which Gilad has been rotting in the dark basements of Hamas, all Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to do is to recycle the press conference of his predecessor," he said.
The protesters are marching to al-Quds (Jerusalem), where they plan to camp outside Netanyahu’s official place of residence. They have vowed not to return home without Shalit.
The Hamas movement has also reacted to Netanyahu’s prisoner swap proposal, rejecting it as deceitful.
"Netanyahu is trying to delude Israeli public opinion and deceive the people," said Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas spokesman.
Shalit was arrested by Palestinians in a cross border operation in June 2006, after he had infiltrated into Palestinian territory.
Following the arrest, prisoner swap negotiations were launched between Israel and Hamas via a German mediator. However, the talks collapsed late last year as Israel refused to meet demands made by Hamas.
In a prisoner swap deal in 2009, Tel Aviv had agreed to release 450 Palestinian prisoners demanded by the Palestinian resistance movement of Hamas. However, Israeli officials later reneged on the deal.
Hamas insists that Shalit will not be freed unless Israel lives up to the original deal.